“Going Viral” in the 1500s

From “How Luther went viral” (The Economist, December 17, 2011):

The start of the Reformation is usually dated to Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517….

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation….

Modern society tends to regard itself as somehow better than previous ones, and technological advance reinforces that sense of superiority. But history teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun. Robert Darnton, an historian at Harvard University, who has studied information-sharing networks in pre-revolutionary France, argues that “the marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the internet.” Social media are not unprecedented: rather, they are the continuation of a long tradition. Modern digital networks may be able to do it more quickly, but even 500 years ago the sharing of media could play a supporting role in precipitating a revolution. Today’s social-media systems do not just connect us to each other: they also link us to the past.

Luther’s success, if it may be called that, was owed not so much to the new technology of printing as to certain constants of human nature:

1. Distant authority is more credible than a familiar source. CEOs resort to this kind of authority when they hire “expert” consultants to rubber-stamp decisions that they — the CEOs — had already reached, so as to “sell” the intended audience (board of directors, senior managers, employees) on the correctness of the decisions. More generally, what is said in print, on the air, on the internet, etc., is accepted as authoritative because it is (usually) delivered in tones of great certainty, supported by fabricated and/or cherry-picked evidence, and originates from a source that cannot be questioned directly and is (wrongly, for the most part) assumed to be authoritative.

2. Last in, last believed. There is a strong tendency to make judgments based on the most recent facts and/or opinions to which one is exposed, especially among persons with little education, persons whose education is non-scientific, and persons of below-average intelligence.

3. Confirmation bias. This is at work in almost everyone, even the “best and brightest.” A person who already leans toward a position will search out and seize upon “facts” that support the position. Distant authority plays a key role in enabling confirmation bias. And once a person finds “the answer” to something — whether the answer is communism, the welfare state, carbon-emission reductions, etc. — he becomes less prone to believe the last thing he hears. But the last thing that swayed him could well have been a speech by FDR denouncing “economic royalists” or one of Al Gore’s presentations about global warming. No mind is more closed than that of an “open minded liberal.”

A man who is not a Liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a Conservative at sixty has no head.

-– attributed to Benjamin Disraeli